Geek Speak: Michael Fergusson, CEO of Ayogo Games
Based in Gastown, the studio specializes in developing serious games. One its latest projects is I ♥ Jellyfish, which is designed to help children learn to manage their heart rate in order to improve their fitness. According to Fergusson, Ayogo expects to release the game to researchers and clinicians in March or April, for use in a study on childhood obesity.
Before cofounding Ayogo in 2008, Fergusson held key roles at MovieSet, Uniserve, and Blast Radius. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica.
The Georgia Straight interviewed Fergusson by phone.
What does Ayogo Games do?
We develop games and game-like applications for health care and education. We use games and play to help people learn and improve their behaviour.
What is gamification?
Gamification, at the broadest possible level, is the application of game-design principles to solve problems or accomplish goals that are not directly related to games or play.
What are the possible benefits of gamification in health care?
Well, people naturally play. It’s sort of humanity’s fundamental behaviour. It’s how we learn. It’s how we test out new behaviours in a comfortable, safe environment before we apply them to the real world.
A lot of the problems we have with health care is that people’s behaviour in the real world is not safe or is not appropriate. It’s difficult or challenging to establish new behaviours, especially when you’re trying to do them in the real world when the stakes are high. So, games and play can be a very good way to introduce new behaviour. It’s also a good way to nudge people with different kinds, new kinds of motivation at precisely the moment when they need it in order to establish a new behaviour and help them habituate it.
How does the I ♥ Jellyfish game fit into that?
The I ♥ Jellyfish game is an interesting example. It is actually an arcade-style game. Most of our games are social games and are designed to be played over months and years. This one’s played in several gaming sessions.
So, let’s just describe a hypothetical situation that the game’s intended to address. If you talk to a child who is young—they’re eight, nine, 10 years old—and they’re having a difficult time managing their weight, and you tell that child, “You need to get more exercise,” they actually don’t know what that means. It’s about effective exercise. It’s not just about getting up and moving around. It’s about getting your heart rate to peak and keeping it there for a certain period of time. But a child has no idea what that feels like—to have their heart at peak. They don’t have any experience. So, what we can do is we can monitor their heart, use their heart rate as an input to the game, and the game will give them some feedback as they’re playing it to say, “Hey, your heart is at the right level, and that’s why your character in the game has these special abilities, because your heart rate is high enough.” Or, “That’s why that special power-up just appeared, because you had your heart rate at peak for two minutes, which is what we’re looking for.” So, the clinician can use the game to guide the child to get their heart and their heart rate into the right state.
Another interesting example is kids being calm before surgery. If you ask a child to be calm before they go into surgery, well, first of all, it’s challenging to do for anybody. But, secondly, kids don’t actually know what that means. In other words, they don’t have much of a concept for the word calm—that is, your heart rate needs to be low and steady. What we can do is we can give them a game that they can play, say, two or three times the week before their surgery, where the game teaches them how to be calm by giving them feedback in the game when their heart rate has reached that low, steady state. So, when it comes time to go into surgery, they actually know how they’re supposed to feel.
What’s an exciting trend to you in serious games today?
I think an exciting trend for me is the general acknowledgement that human beings are playful, and that play is not trivial. Play is critically important. I love to give the example of hide-and-seek. Hide-and-seek is a serious game. It is the gamification of hiding from predators and seeking food, and if humanity hadn’t developed that game, we would not exist as a species. We would have gone extinct. So, games have always been critical for humanity’s survival.
Unless we’re addressing this aspect of human behaviour, we’re actually not addressing the whole person. How can you expect a person to learn or grow or change their behaviour if you’re not talking to them properly, if you’re not talking to them in terms that make sense biologically or sociologically and psychologically? So, I think this is an interesting trend, just like how 10 or 15 years ago people talked a lot about “usability”. Web usability was a big topic, and you could hire people to do it. But now you can’t anymore. There are no such people, because people now acknowledge usability is just a quality of high-quality design. If your thing is not usable, then it’s not properly designed.
In the same way, I think this idea of gamification is just really going to go away—and not soon enough, from my point of view—and really become an element of high-quality design. If you want someone to be motivated to do the right thing, you have to make it enjoyable for them, you have to give them a sense of satisfaction, they have to develop a sense of mastery, they have to have a feeling that they’re making progress towards their goal—all of which are qualities inherent to games and play.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? You can tell Stephen Hui on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.